Sonic has fallen on some hard times lately. Scratch that…Sonic has hit rock bottom. While his portable games keep his legacy going, the console titles are doing exactly the opposite. We were impressed with Sonic Adventure back in the day simply because it was the first time we saw Sonic take a 3d form in traditional style. As the years went on, we came to realize that Sonic’s 3d outings were getting worse and worse. We saw that Sonic Adventure wasn’t that good of a game, and each game after was (arguably) worse. Many reviewers agree that the most recent game, Sonic the Hedgehog (360, PS3) was one of the worst titles yet. Anytime Sonic heads to 3d, his games are plagued with poor level designs, horrible camera work, and numerous glitches. It seemed that Sonic couldn’t shake his poor performance. Still, fans held out hope (myself included) for the next Sonic title. At E3 2006 we learned of Sonic and the Secret Rings (then called Sonic Wild Fire). At that time we didn’t know that Sonic the Hedgehog would turn out poorly. A few months before Secret Rings release, Sonic fans were once again let down. The only hope in sight would be Sonic’s first Wii adventure. Could a new platform and control scheme bring Sonic back to life? To put things simply, Sonic and the Secret Rings is the best 3d Sonic title we have seen to date. That’s not to say it’s without issues.
Originally Sega was going to port the PS3/360 version of Sonic the Hedgehog to the Wii. Lucky for us, they were inspired when they first saw the Wii’s unique control scheme. After some time with the hardware, they decided to begin work on a Wii exclusive Sonic title. Sonic and the Secret Rings takes us back to basics. While Sonic’s friends do appear in Secret Rings, they are not playable in the single player game. The secondary cast is relegated to bit parts in the game’s storyline, and they also find a home in the multiplayer mode. While gameplay returns Sonic to his roots, the storyline is quite different. Instead of Sonic chasing after Eggman, he is trying to stop a new villain. For those that haven’t jumped into the game yet, I won’t go into those details. The setting is actually a storybook based on an Arabian Nights theme. As mentioned earlier, the rest of the Sonic cast plays parts in this storybook. The only other person that knows Sonic is in a storybook is a genie, which is the woman who granted his wish to dive into the book. Now it’s Sonic’s job to save this new kingdom, collect the secret rings, and put an end to any villainy he comes across.
Secret Rings gameplay is quite a mix of different ideas. One of the first things you will notice is the strong old-school flair. I’m talking real old-school, as in Sonic 1. From the start, Sonic has the power to run, and jump. No speed dash, no rev up, just running. He also retains the enemy lock-on attack, and ability to grind rails from all of his 3d outings, which are some of the few good things to come out of those games. Sonic still collects rings as a source of life. This time around, when he gets hit he doesn’t lose all of his rings. Instead, he will lose a set amount depending on what he is hit by/with. Secret Rings even does away with some elements that we saw in the original 2d Sonic titles. There aren’t any monitors that house power ups, there are no fire, magnetic, or bubble shields to hunt down, and you don’t fight Eggman at the end of every world. Now that we’ve discussed the old, let’s get into the new.
The biggest addition to gameplay in Secret Rings is the ability to flesh out Sonic’s abilities. In an RPG-light fashion, Sonic has a set of rings that he can add abilities to. By completing levels and missions, Sonic learns new move sets. As you progress through the game, a huge amount become unlocked…which makes it pretty hard to decide what you want to equip. On top of that, each skill can only be “equipped” if you have a certain amount of skill points. Skill points are earned from completing levels as well. The higher your goal score is, the quicker you can earn more skill points. Once you acquire enough points, you enter a menu to choose which moves you want Sonic to have. For example, one of the abilities Sonic can gain is a quicker recovery time. This comes into play when you are knocked down by an enemy. This skill costs (for the sake of explanation) 3 skill points. If you have enough points, Sonic can then equip that ability to his ring. As mentioned earlier, Sonic has more than one ring to equip abilities to. You can group whatever abilities you like on each ring, until you reach the set limit. These RPG features add in a much deeper experience to Sonic than we have ever seen. You can set up one right that adds a lot of strength/power to Sonic, and wear that ring into a boss fight. You can fill another ring with all sorts of abilities to boost speed, which is great for race missions. The micro-management of skill sets is an essential part of making it through Secret Rings, and luckily it is a lot of fun to do.
One of the more obvious changes to Sonic with Secret Rings would be the control scheme. Gone are the days of controlling Sonic with a joystick/d-pad, he’s gone motion sensing on us. Secret Rings is controlled by holding the Wiimote in “Classic NES” style, with your left thumb by the directional pad, and your right thumb by the 1 & 2 buttons. Instead of using the d-pad to move Sonic, you will be tilting the Wiimote left and right. It’s easiest to picture this if you think of Sonic as a car. The 2 button will allow Sonic to jump, while the 1 button will act as Sonic’s brakes. Jumping is a little bit different this time around. If you press the 2 button, Sonic will crouch down to the ground. Once you release, he will launch himself into the air. It’s almost as if he is charging up his jump. This takes a little while to get used to if you are a traditional Sonic fan, but within an hour you should be fine. To use Sonic’s homing attack; you first jump into the air, and then slam the Wiimote down (in the air, not into something of course!). You repeat the slamming motion to continually home in on enemies. Finally, you use the d-pad in order to take advantage of Sonic’s special abilities. You eventually gain the powers of speeding up/slowing down time, which you use by pressing up and down on the d-pad. While we were all nervous about Sonic’s motion-mapped controls, it turns out that they function extremely well. The only let down would have to be when you need to get Sonic to back up. This is done by twisting the Wiimote backwards. It takes quite a turn to get Sonic to back up, and it can be quite frustrating when you need it. It’s quite obvious that the developers wanted to make sure that you didn’t reverse by accident while slamming the Wiimote down for a homing attack. Also working in our favor is the fact that Sonic only has to backtrack for tiny bits of gameplay.
Secret Rings also changes up how 3d spaces are handled. Gameplay feels closely related to an on-rails game. On-rails simply means that your character is constantly moving ahead, and you are reacting to the area/enemies around you. Sonic does continually run forward until he hits an enemy, at which time he gets back up and slowly starts to build speed again. There is also a camera that is fixed behind Sonic’s back (for the most part). You control Sonic on a track by guiding him through it. The game will take you around big bends, up and down walls, around corners, through the air, and more without you having to worry about where to turn. While it’s true that this is a fundamental change for Sonic, it really doesn’t differ that much from previous 3d Sonic games. From Adventure to the new Sonic the Hedgehog, all you are doing is pushing forward and jumping, and at times the game completely takes over and you just watch. Secret Rings simply eliminates the constant push forward by making Sonic build speed on his own. It can be argued that Secret Rings actually gives you more control when compared to previous 3d adventures. While there are still portions where you sit back and watch Sonic, I felt that there were far less of these instances than in Sonic the Hedgehog. This is something that will have to be decided for the player him/herself.
Secret Rings isn’t without faults though. While camera issues from previous games have mostly been ironed out, there are still some quirks. Sometimes when locking onto an enemy, the camera will jitter back and forth while in the air. This can be extremely confusing if you don’t have another enemy to lock onto after your attack. Another example of camera issues comes in during cinematic angles. While you are running along, the camera will switch to a more dramatic position without any notice. You could be gearing up to take out a few enemies only to have the camera reverse, therefore screwing up your orientation. While the different shots give the game a nice effect, they can hurt in the gameplay department.
Unfortunately Secret Rings isn’t without its glitches either. It appears that Sega has cleaned up the game quite a bit when compared to previous titles, but there are still issues to work out. These issues aren’t because of Secret Rings gameplay style; they are a product of all 3d Sonics. Sonic will still get stuck behind objects for no apparent reason. There are also instances when you are running along and you will just fall through the ground. We are talking about the types of bugs that you would expect to be fixed within the first round of beta testing. I cannot figure out how Sega continues to let these errors pop up. We are talking about Sonic the Hedgehog…the mascot responsible for launching Sega to popularity in the 16-bit days. How they can let things like this come up in a key franchise is beyond me.
Level designs and structure are excellent for the most part. Every world is extremely distinct, and offers up a fresh experience. This is a good thing seeing that you will be revisiting them many times. While this isn’t a major complaint in my opinion, some seem to be very bothered by it. In order to unlock new levels, you have to complete enough side missions, and gain enough points. Once you beat a set amount, a new level is opened up. Each level contains a large amount of missions to complete. Some of the missions involve racing the clock, killing every enemy, collecting 99 rings, and more. These missions all take place in the same level, although they start you out in different places. While I found the missions enjoyable, it would have been nice to have the next level unlocked once you finish the previous. It is a toss up when you think about it. If each level was unlocked as soon as you beat the previous, Secret Rings wouldn’t be a very long game. Your final completion time is a lot longer because of these missions. You may see this as a positive or negative. I just wish we knew if Sega intended the game to play this way from the start, or added in these missions later in development to flesh things out.
One of the worst parts of the game isn’t even in the single player. Secret Rings offers up a multiplayer mode, which I doubt many of you will spend time with. The multiplayer mode plays out as Mario Party light…VERY light. There are different types of themes to play, but each one will have you taking on groups of mini-games. More than 75% of these games just aren’t fun, or don’t respond to Wiimote controls. I tested out multiplayer mode with one of the GoNintendo staff, and it was absolute torture. We played through a few rounds in a couple modes, and it dragged on forever. Even with controller explanations before each game, we were left scratching our heads once they started. Sometimes the Wiimote just wouldn’t do what you wanted it to. Other times you had no idea how to play the game. There’s no doubt that multiplayer was either tacked on at the last moment, or developed by a completely different team. It’s a shame really, because multiplayer could have added in a lot of replay value. There are a couple standout mini-games, as well as interesting ideas. One mini-game has you playing a violin in a “Simon Says” style. A computer controlled character plays a short song on the violin. When your turn comes up, you hold the Wiimote as a bow, and move back and forth to play the song yourself. The violin music actually comes out of the Wiimote speaker instead of the TV. If only more of the games could have been as interesting and fine tuned as this one.
When you look at Sonic and the Secret Rings, you can tell that it was built from the ground up for the Wii. This is probably the best looking Wii game we have seen yet. Everything from settings to character models have definitely received a bump in the graphics department. The water alone is absolutely outstanding. It’s really refreshing to see a title stand out in the graphics department after seeing so many half-hearted ports. Secret Rings gives us a glimpse at what the Wii can do, as well as teaching us how first gen Wii games should look. If there is any complaint to be had, it would be with animation. Some enemies and secondary characters have a limited animation set. This stands out at times when compared to Sonic’s very fluid movements. Still though, this is a very minor complaint in a category where Secret Rings shines.
Well that high was short lived. Now we have to move into the category of audio. Let’s see…something nice to say about the audio. Classic Sonic sound effects have returned, and those are always welcome. Additional sound effects such as ocean waves, thunder cracking and roaring fires are excellent as well. That’s about all I can muster up for the positive side of things. Voice acting is absolutely horrendous. Everyone from Sonic to the main enemy are a pain to listen to. I can’t believe that Sonic’s voice actor did a bad job, seeing that he voices Sonic in the cartoon as well. Everyone sounds as if they went to the William Shatner school for acting. Awkward pauses, strange inflections, and terrible pacing. The only thing worse than the voice work is the actual soundtrack. Every song has singing, and every one of them is cheesier than the last. I am not against singing at all, but what they have put together here isn’t worth a listen. Sometimes things are so bad they are good, or at least funny. Secret Ring’s soundtrack is so bad it makes you angry. Please Sega, bring back in Hideki Naganuma from Sonic Rush, or Masato Nakamura from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. These were outstanding soundtracks, and I am sure those guys would be willing to help if you played them this stuff!
I came away very pleased with Sonic and the Secret Rings. I was so nervous for the title before it came out; I didn’t want it to be another bad 3d title. Luckily the game turned out to be more positive than negative. The action is fun, the levels are great, the controls work well, and the designs are interesting. Unfortunately the camera still needs work, bugs are present, gameplay has a few hiccups, and the level progression is questionable. The good thing we can say is that Secret Rings bests all other 3d Sonic’s hands down. The bad thing we can say is that the portable versions are still where it’s at (bad for consoles, great for portables). Secret Rings is a massive leap forward for Sonic in 3d. I really hope the title sells well enough to warrant a sequel. I want to see what Sega can do with more time to tweak gameplay, and add in features. Someone at Sega wants to see Sonic return to his former glory. While he has a ways to go, we now have proof that it is possible. Secret Rings finally takes Sonic out of the hell that he’s been in for the last few years. Let’s see if he can claw his way all the way back to the top.
Sonic and the Secret Rings gets a 7.3 out of 10
Wow, writing that kept me up just a little bit later then usual! I think it’s definitely time to get some sleep. Quick note, I am going to start adding in random Digg links on stories. Seems like Digg is all the rage with those youngsters nowadays. Please, don’t feel like you have to click the Digg link at all. If you want to, go right ahead…if not, pretend it isn’t even there. I get emails all the time asking why I don’t have Digg links, so this should make some people happy! I’ll catch you guys in a few hours with Wednesday morning updates. Take care everyone, and have a great morning.